Northeast Ohio Media Group ran an article recently that compared the Urban Meyer-Nick Saban rivalry to “The Ten Year War,” which was the rivalry between Woody Hayes’ Ohio State Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines in the 1960s and 1970s. It was convenient, especially when one considers the intensity both rivalries (Meyer and Saban’s from Meyer’s days of coaching the Florida Gators against Saban’s Alabama teams) evoked. Both of them stoked the fanbases and held national title implications on any given year.
But “The Ten Year War” was, no matter the fervor of its fans and players, nothing more than a great regional rivalry, the backbone of Midwestern football’s heyday before the SEC came of age in the last 20 years. While everything in college football’s ongoing one hundred-year-plus history comes in cycles and eras, the Meyer-Saban rivalry is the epitome of today’s brand of college football: bigger, more powerful, faster, the deciding link that crowned a “true” (if you count their SEC Championship battles as de facto semi-final games) national champion for most of the aughts.
That rivalry resumes on New Year’s Day when Meyer’s Ohio State Buckeyes play Saban’s venerable Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl in a national semifinal game. It’s Red Sox-Yankees, Madrid-Barcelona, if those comparisons are apt, that spans decades, teams, conferences and geographical regions. It’s goliath-versus-titan–a program that represents what college football once was against a team that represents what college football is now.
This is the long, storied history of Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
1980s: The Early Years
Nick Saban started as a graduate assistant at Kent State, his Alma Mater, in the early-1970s. Urban Meyer’s first collegiate coaching gigs came at Ohio State in the mid-1980s as a tight ends and receivers coach. While neither were head coaches, both featured on staffs that played each other during this time, as Meyer’s Buckeyes faced off against Saban’s Michigan State team (of which he was a defensive coordinator) in 1987, which was a 7-13 Buckeyes loss.
1990s: Saban’s return to Michigan State
By the time Saban had accepted the Toledo head coaching job in 1990, Meyer had just put in two years at Illinois State and actually applied to become a member of Saban’s staff. The New York Times‘ Pete Thamel has the story on how that worked out:
He called Nick Saban, who had recently been hired as Toledo’s coach, to see if he could have a job on his staff. In the days before cellphones, Meyer wrangled a home number for Saban and ended up speaking with his wife, Terry, for about 10 minutes.
“She was sold,” Meyer recalled with a smile. He told his wife, Shelley, “We’re going to Toledo.”
Saban never called. The Meyers went to Colorado State. Terry Saban has not forgotten.
“She was right about that,” Nick Saban said. “And she lets me know from time to time that she was right.”
Saban bounced around the NFL for a bit after he left Toledo following that 1990 season, eventually ending up back in East Lansing as the Spartans’ head coach for the 1995 season. Meyer was, by that point, the wide receivers coach at Notre Dame. From 1997 to 1999, Saban’s Spartan teams won all three meetings with the Fighting Irish, who struggled under head coach Bob Davie.
Once Saban bolted for LSU, it was the last time the two would face each other on opposites of the field until both were head coaches in the SEC.
2008: Meyer vs. Saban I
Meyer had already won a national championship at Florida by the time Saban returned to the college ranks in 2007. Meyer’s 2006 Florida squad stomped and squashed Ohio State in that season’s BCS title game, starting a seven-year run of SEC excellence. After a 9-4 2007 season, the Gators were once again the creme of the crop and squared off against Saban’s resurgent Alabama program in the conference title game.
Meyer’s Florida team featured quarterback Tim Tebow, a swift spread offense, and a speedy defense, while Saban boasted the trademark smash-mouth brand of football he’s come to trademark at the school. The Crimson Tide led going into the fourth quarter, but Meyer’s Gators stormed back behind Tebow’s rallying spirit. His play would eventually secure the Gators’ second national title in three seasons.